portret Julien van Ostaaijen

"Local government deserves much more credit"

Passion 3 min. Corine Schouten

Municipal elections are on the way. Which parties are entering the fray and what is their platform? Many people probably couldn’t answer either question. Local government is underappreciated, as Dr. Julien van Ostaaijen well knows. He is Assistant Professor of Public Governance at Tilburg Law School and Lector in Law & Security at Avans University of applied sciences. He is actually fascinated by the highly motivated politicians and city officials who shape a large portion of our daily lives. And he has written a book about it: 'Local Democracy Explained. How an Underapreciated Layer of Administration Functions' (Lokale democratie doorgelicht. Het functioneren van een onbegrepen bestuur).

Photo Julien van Ostaaijen: Dolph Cantrijn

“Our attention is consistently captured by political events in The Hague, the seat of our national government, thundering into our living rooms every day”, Van Ostaaijen puts into words his fascination. “But the numbers show that is a lopsided view: our national parliament has 225 elected members, but locally there are nearly 9,000 city councillors, over 1,000 aldermen and alderwomen, and about 300 mayors. What’s more, these local officials are in a very real sense much closer to us: we could run into them just around the corner. A notable difference with other countries is that in the Netherlands local politics doesn’t really speak to people all that much. Then again, our volunteer work record is pretty decent.”

Local government does not play second fiddle to national government

Van Ostaaijen also firmly refutes the prejudice against local politics as being about trivial matters only. In recent years, local administrators have extended their already substantial control over major social issues in, for example, the social domain, housing construction, our security, and healthcare. Local government does not play second fiddle to national government, Van Ostaaijen contends. Not entirely, anyway. The regulatory frameworks and budgets are to a large extent set by the national government or even by the EU, but the discretionary powers of local governments are considerable. For example, municipalities are free to determine the administrative charges of a new passport and the quid pro quo for receiving benefits, even if the national government does sometimes intervene when it feels intermunicipal differences are getting out of hand. “But these differences were the whole point to begin with,” van Ostaaijen ripostes.

The relative disregard, and possibly also dislike, of local democracy does not only show in the turnout of voters in the municipal elections every four years, but also in van Ostaaijen’s own students. This was one of the reasons for him to write a book that both describes and analyses local democracy using three values of good governance: performance, responsiveness, and fairness. He also has tips for improvement that can benefit everyone involved in local government.

So what is a local party?

One of the poorly understood features of our local government are the local parties. Van Ostaaijen: “As my research evolved, I could not help but notice that no one really knows how many there are. Or even what a local party actually is. Is Jezus Leeft (Jesus Lives) a local party, a national one, or some sort of blend? And what does that make the Friese Nationale Partij (Frisian National Party)? The same haze of ambiguity also surrounds local branches of national political parties: how national is a local chapter of the ruling VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy)? Local politicians aren’t really all that different from their national counterparts. And there are plenty of national politicians who go local, and vice versa.”

What is true for local parties is also true for national parties: to find out what these parties stand for, voters need to make an effort.

There are differences, of course. Van Ostaaijen points out that many local parties have no choice but to invest heavily in canvassing to increase their visibility. And the diversity is considerable: the 800 to 900 parties run the spectrum of big and small parties, young and old parties, DIY and professional parties, critical and bureaucratic parties, protest parties, and so on and so forth.

Surely, it is hardly surprising that voters can’t find their bearings in this landscape? Van Ostaaijen is having none of that. “Of course everyone has the right to cast an uninformed vote. But what is true for local parties is also true for national parties entering municipal elections: to know what these parties stand for, voters need to make an effort.”

Greatest strength

What struck van Ostaaijen especially as he analyzed local government is that people who are actively involved in local politics are generally very good at what they do. They may not yet be dyed-in-the-wool politicians, but they really want their town of city to flourish. They do their level best to involve citizens in policy and they operate as professionally as possible to ensure decent governance. “That to me is the greatest strength of local politics,” van Ostaaijen says.

Naturally, some things do go wrong and that’s where his recommendations come in. He also addresses good governance and integrity, partly inspired by Omtzigt-gate, a scandal in national politics (revolving around coalition negotiators allegedly attempting to sideline a critical member of parliament) that bears on local politics, too. Still, the biggest problems he sees are not intrinsic to local government but are external to it: uninterested voters and a national government that does not always act in the local interest.

cover Lokaal bestuur doorgelicht

The Hague

“Consider polarization, climate measures, Covid-19 policies. It would be wise if The Hague paid more heed to what the municipalities have to say about such issues. Mayors are slap bang in the middle of society and they are the first to know how things work out. Differences of opinion between national and local administrators are inevitable, of course, perhaps because of the adage ‘where you sit is what you see’. But they can benefit from each other’s networks and that would be the better thing.”

Julien van Ostaaijen’s book Lokale democratie doorgelicht. Het functioneren van een onbegrepen bestuur (Local democracy explained. How an underappreciated layer of administration functions, Boom Uitgevers, The Hague) was released in early February 2022.